U.S. Navy Sued to Protect Critically Endangered Whales

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Atlanta, GA -- The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), has filed suit against the U.S. Navy over its plans to build a $100 million Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR) 50 miles east of the Jacksonville, Florida coast. The plans involve the construction of a 500 square nautical mile range and the operation of over 400 Navy war game exercises every year.

The USWTR has the potential to affect millions of marine animals including whales, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees, and the planned site lies adjacent to the only known calving grounds of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

AWI is being represented by the non-profit public interest law firm Earthjustice in the suit which includes 12 other groups. The suit alleges the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which has authorized the project, did not properly analyze the environmental impacts of operating the range before deciding to construct it. The Navy acknowledges that more work is needed to assess the environmental impacts but it chose to proceed nevertheless.

"It is shocking that despite the concerns expressed by scientists, conservation and animal welfare groups, fishermen and the states of Georgia and Florida, the Navy decided to go ahead with the project without comprehensive impact assessments," said Cathy Liss, President of AWI. "Scientists tell us that if a single female right whale is struck and killed, the species could go extinct. Extreme precaution is the only way to proceed when faced with such risks" she added.

The range will include the laying of cables on the sea bed to track the 470 war games exercises that will take place each year. Each exercise will include up to three Navy vessels, and two aircraft deploying exercise torpedoes, parachutes and sonobuoys. Debris from the exercises will be abandoned, posing entanglement and other hazards to marine animals. Active sonar will be used during the exercises and has been proven to harm and kill wildlife by disturbing essential behaviors such as nursing, feeding and breeding, causing physical injury and even causing animals to strand and die. Navy vessels - exempt from speed restrictions imposed on other vessels to avoid right whale collisions - will expose animals to the risk of being struck and maimed or killed.

"The number and severity of threats this range poses to the marine life of the lower Eastern Seaboard is incredible," said Susan Millward, Executive Director of AWI and marine animal program manager. "The Navy has an obligation to ensure its actions do not threaten the environment and by allowing the Navy to proceed, NMFS is betraying the public's trust in it to protect these animals."

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The challenge was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia by the Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Florida Wildlife Federation, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Ocean Mammal Institute, Citizens Opposing Active Sonar Threats and Cetacean Society International. The groups are represented by attorneys from Southern Environmental Law Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council.